The Nueces County Commissioners recently tabled an agreement with potential developers of an outlet mall in Robstown, although County Judge Loyd Neal said he hopes to ink a deal by the end of the month to land the mammoth venture and its projected gross sales of $122.5 million in its first year.

The commissioners met in executive session for about three hours at the end of their Oct. 3 meeting to "discuss and consider authorizing the execution of the purchase agreement with Dolphin Ventures I, L.L.C. for the purchase of the 45 acres and related matters."

When the commissioners emerged into public session late in the afternoon, Neal called for a motion to table the agreement, which passed unanimously.

The contract with Dolphin was subsequently placed on the commissioners' Oct. 17 agenda after receiving no discussion at the commissioners' Oct. 10 meeting. Precinct 3 Commissioner Oscar Ortiz said Wednesday that the item would remain on the agenda for each meeting from now on so that the county can take action if it needs to. Until then, negotiations will continue.

"We need to get some legal advice from outside counsel," Ortiz said. "We just want to make sure we dot our 'I's' and cross our 'T's.'"

Neal said that he remains optimistic about a deal being reached to sale 45 acres of the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds to Dolphin Ventures to build a $50 million to $65 million outlet mall in Robstown, with 65 to 80 stores.

"We still have a number of issues before the court in the contract," Neal said. "There are some issues surrounding the feasibility study. We have to agree to several conditions of the feasibility study. We still have to see their development plan. We haven't done that yet."

Neal said Dolphin has agreed to the $2,270,000 purchase price for 45.4 acres along U.S. Business 77 North at $50,000 per acre. The land was appraised at $20,500 an acre, Neal said.

Neal said the developers also wanted an access road from Highway 77, which Neal said is under the jurisdiction of TxDOT.

A prior county agreement is another problem, Neal said. The county has made a commitment to donate 4 1/2 acres of the property that Dolphin is eyeing to the Education Service Center, Region 2 for a children's museum.

Given a choice between a children's museum and a development that could generate 1,000 new jobs and $122.5 million of projected gross sales in its first year, Neal said he'd clearly prefer the outlet mall.

"From an economic development standpoint, I'd clearly have the mall and look for an alternative site for the museum," Neal said. "It's not a choice of either or. The choice is in order for us to complete the amount of acreage that the mall personnel have asked for, we would have to include the acres previously committed to the museum and then look for an alternative site for the museum."

Neal said Dolphin also wanted help with infrastructure, such as a drainage plan, but he said most of those issues would be under the jurisdiction of other governmental entities.

"We're still actively involved in working to make this a reality," Neal said. "We certainly have a willing buyer and a willing seller. We'd like to get an agreement signed by both sides this month. This is a big deal and we want to make sure it's done right."

Questions regarding the tax-free status of the certificates of obligation used to obtain the fairgrounds property have been resolved after the county hired a law firm to investigate the bonds, Neal said.

"Based on what we heard before, that's not going to be an issue," Neal said. "They basically told us how we could cure those concerns."

Neal said Friday the developers had not yet requested any type of property tax abatements or other tax reductions. Robstown city officials also said they have not been contacted by the developers, although Mayor Rodrigo Ramon Jr. has said he is open to negotiating a financial package with Dolphin Ventures, saying the outlet mall would be "a huge impact project for the whole region."

The Robstown Independent School District stands to reap the most in property tax revenues, followed by the city of Robstown. County property taxes are about a third the rate of Robstown's property taxes.

In addition to property taxes, the Robstown Area Development Commission, the city of Robstown and Nueces County have a prior agreement to share local sales taxes from the fairgrounds.

Developers said construction could begin as early as next spring, if the project progresses smoothly.

Several name-brand stores have been contacted and have shown an interest in locating outlet stores in western Nueces County, including Brooks Bros., The GAP, Nike, Polo, Vanity Fair and many more, said Peter Edelmann and Lisa Quier-Wagner, two of Dolphin Venture I's three partners.

The 65 to 80 stores are projected to gross $122.5 million in sales in the first year, said Edelmann of Colchester, Vermont. Quier-Wagner of North Bethesda, Md. said 80 stores would yield about a thousand full- and part-time jobs.

A hotel or motel and numerous restaurants are also part of the proposal, although a cinema is not in the offing because of the proximity of 5-Star Cinema in Calallen, said Edelmann, owner of EuroWest Properties of Essex, Vt., which includes an outlet shopping center and inn in Essex.

The limited liability partnership based in San Antonio is also considering a second phase beyond the 65 to 80 retail stores planned.

Edelmann said the project would cost about $50 million for 300,000 square feet. A 300,000-square-foot outlet mall would mean 50 to 60 outlet tenants, said Rick Carduner, the third partner with Dolphin Ventures I.

The partners said they are finalizing floor plans and the proposed project could be enlarged from 300,000 to 350,000 square feet in its initial phase.

A 350,000-square-foot outlet center would cost closer to $65 million to construct, Edelmann said.

The partnership has a second potential site under contract in the Calallen area, said Quier-Wagner, owner of Quier Target Marketing of North Bethesda.

However, the recently formed partnership is leaning toward the fairgrounds site, across the street from the Keach Family Library that's under construction, because of its access to local highways and other attractions at the fairgrounds, the partners said.

Edelmann said the fairgrounds location has a lot of advantages, including its proximity to a major airport, the intersection of highways 44 and 77, and downtown Corpus Christi.

He said assuming the site plans are approved for the fairgrounds location, construction could start in the spring of 2008, with eight to nine months of construction.

Once construction is completed, it would likely take 90 days to outfit the stores for their tenants, he said, enabling the outlet mall to be called The Outlets to open before its initial projected opening date in August 2009.

Carduner, owner of Carduner Commercial LLC in San Antonio, said the local market is ripe for an outlet mall with the closet other outlet centers being in Mercedes and San Marcos.

News editor Tim Olmeda contributed to this report